Where’s Newt? Post-announcement vacation raises questions about Gingrich candidacy [Updated]

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Weeks after launching his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has raised eyebrows among supporters and political observers by taking a vacation with his wife -- during the same week prominent religious conservatives are gathering in Washington.

Gingrich, who has been married three times, has been aggressively courting the religious conservatives, including many of the “pro-marriage” activists gathering in Washington.

His spokesman, Rick Tyler, said Gingrich had told Ralph Reed and other organizers of the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference long ago that he would not be able to attend because of the family commitment.

Tyler said Gingrich was sending a video statement to the gathering and was remaining active, issuing public comments on Friday’s dismal economic reports.

The Gingriches, Tyler said, are simply taking a long-planned leave from the pressures of the campaign.

“This was the one opportunity early in the campaign to do it,” he said. “His absence shouldn’t in any way be taken as a sign that the conference is not important. It is,” Tyler said, adding: “Everyone needs a break.”

The vacation follows a series of problems for Gingrich’s nascent campaign. Gingrich told Sunday talk show interviewers last month that a Republican Medicare proposal was “right-wing social engineering.”

The former speaker took his words back a few days later under heavy criticism from Republicans. He also called the author of the proposal, Rep. Paul Ryan, to apologize.

As the vacation began, one of Gingrich’s high-profile organizers in Iowa, Will Rogers, decided to step down from his paid position with the Gingrich campaign, where he had served, in his words, as “a kind of political director,” organizing grass-roots activities and reaching out to Republicans, whom he knows from his past role as Polk County Republican co-chair.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rogers said his decision to return to private employment was “entirely a personal decision” and that he will still work for Gingrich as a volunteer.

However, he also issued a caution to Gingrich saying “if he’s serious he will have to come back to Iowa” and spend a considerable amount of time further developing his grassroots network in the state. Asked whether he thought Gingrich was serious, Rogers said, “That’s an open question right now.”

Rogers noted that Gingrich drew enthusiastic crowds in Iowa, even after his talk-show gaffe. Rogers expressed concern, however, about the timing of the vacation. “I don’t begrudge him and his wife having time together,” Rogers said. “I do know it was not the most opportune time to go.”

Rogers downplayed the impact of his own departure, saying the Gingrich Iowa team remains intact. He said many of his duties will be taken over by Katie Koberg, a tax activist and experienced organizer.

UPDATED: Gingrich’s spokesman Rick Tyler says the speaker will return to New Hampshire on June 8 for, among other things, the screening of his new film about Pope John Paul II. After reading Rogers’ comments, Tyler added that he offered “good advice. We’ll take it.”